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‘Pitfalls ahead’ for web freedom, report finds

A man browses the internet at a cafe in Phnom Penh this year. A new report on internet neutrality has rated the Kingdoms internet freedom as partly free, the same status as the previous two years.
A man browses the internet at a cafe in Phnom Penh this year. A new report on internet neutrality has rated the Kingdoms internet freedom as partly free, the same status as the previous two years. Hong Menea

‘Pitfalls ahead’ for web freedom, report finds

While Cambodia lacks a “rigorous, systematic approach to internet censorship”, new programs regulating telecommunications, online expression and cybercrime threaten the relative freedom it currently enjoys, according to a new report.

The Freedom on the Net 2015 report, released on Friday by American watchdog organisation Freedom House, assigned the Kingdom a ranking of “partly free” – the same status it has held for the past two years – based on the criteria of “obstacles to access”, “limits on content” and “violations of user rights”.

Cambodia was ranked 38th out of the 65 countries surveyed, with a score of 48 out of 100, with zero being the best possible score.

The report highlights a still-unapproved telecommunications law drafted in 2014 that would impose sweeping controls on the sector for the purposes of “effective security, national stability and public order”, potentially leaving the door open for censorship.

Last year also saw the announcement of a Ministry of Information program aimed at restricting the online publishing of “immoral content”.

When asked yesterday as to whether any content had been targeted on these grounds, Ministry of Information spokesman Ouk Kimseng stated, “We don’t have any restrictions at all.”

Another draft law revealed in 2014 would impose severe penalties on a variety of broadly defined cybercrimes committed through telecommunications networks.

That bill now appears off the table, but observers fear that a new anti-cybercrime department created by the Interior Ministry this September may herald a crackdown on online expression.

Government officials declined or were unavailable to comment yesterday on the enforcement of cybercrime laws.

Although government regulation of online activity has not yet tangibly increased, NGOs and analysts have raised fears that these new measures are steps toward a less-free internet for Cambodia.

Internet freedom is subject to “mood swings of the government and ruling party”, said political blogger Ou Ritthy, pointing to article 28 of the draft cybercrime law, a broadly worded section that would criminalise content that would “hinder sovereignty,” “slander” the government or “incite the population.”

The provision is clearly intended to “restrict freedom of expression and dissemination of information online, especially with regard to political issues,” he said.

Tharum Bun, a blogger and digital strategist, thinks the future is uncertain for internet freedom in Cambodia.

“We’ll have to wait and see in a couple of years, especially just ahead of the upcoming national elections in 2018,” he said.

Grassroots online advocacy has influenced a number of recent major news events, the report finds, including the 2013 national elections and the investigation of the December 2014 murder of business tycoon Ung Meng Chue.

But according to Ritthy, many activists now practice self-censorship on social media in order to avoid scrutiny from a government that seeks to “punish … those who have different or opposite opinions.”

While these concerns remain moot for many Cambodians, with nationwide internet penetration still at just 9 per cent, Tharum believes that the increasing availability of cheap smartphones will “light up and connect Cambodia’s most rural parts.”

In fact, 19 per cent of Cambodians already browse the web on their smartphones, bypassing poor internet infrastructure and unreliable electricity in many areas of the country.

On a positive note, the report praises Cambodians’ access to “unbiased information” from web and social media-based news sources, though Freedom House’s separate Freedom of the Press report for this year rated the Kingdom’s overall press environment “not free”.

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